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Redford’s ‘Unfinished’ business

 Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez) finds that the only option left to her and her preteen daughter (Becca Gardner) is to move in with her father-in-law (Robert Redford) on his Wyoming ranch, even though they have been estranged for quite some time, in
Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez) finds that the only option left to her and her preteen daughter (Becca Gardner) is to move in with her father-in-law (Robert Redford) on his Wyoming ranch, even though they have been estranged for quite some time, in "An Unfinished Life." (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Terry Lawson Detroit Free Press

Robert Redford has had to postpone his morning interview, and when he does check in with apologies, he reports the reason with some wariness.

“I had to do some business with corporate America,” he says. “My least favorite thing.”

The business concerned the Sundance Channel, the cable network that Redford said was designed to bring the festival to people who can’t go. More and more of the movies that screen every January at the Park City, Utah, festival, which Redford took over more than 20 years ago, now find their way to TV screens.

But Sundance’s partnership with Viacom faltered in the last few years. A change of leadership, Redford says, has made for a better atmosphere, but he wants to be free to be “more aggressive” – as in broadcasting last year’s “Vote for Change” concerts, an idea Viacom thought unwise.

“Then comes the musical chairs, the constant changes in leadership, and it all happens again,” he says.

Corporate politics also have affected Redford’s new film, “An Unfinished Life,” which opens in theaters today.

To Redford’s “enormous frustration,” it has been on the shelf for more than two years amid a battle between Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the departing founders of film distributor Miramax, and its corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co.

The Weinsteins were allowed to shepherd their remaining films to market, but as Redford observes, some are being shepherded with more guidance than others.

“It could make me crazy if I let it,” he says.

“An Unfinished Life” is easily Redford’s best film since 1998’s “The Horse Whisperer” and the first to see him truly accepting, if not altogether embracing, his 68 years. He plays an embittered Wyoming rancher who spends his days cutting brush and looking after his former horse wrangler and best friend, played by Morgan Freeman, an invalid after being mauled by a bear.

But the rancher’s life changes dramatically with the arrival of his dead son’s former wife, played by Jennifer Lopez, and an 11-year-old granddaughter he never knew he had. He had finally begun to live with his son’s death in a car accident 12 years before. But seeing Lopez, whom he blames for the tragedy, opens old wounds.

“God, it was great to play a guy like him, gone to seed, surly. I put on weight, didn’t have to shave or get groomed every morning, didn’t have to smile for the camera,” Redford says.

“Plus, I had never played that guy before, but I knew him intimately. You live in the West long enough, you meet those guys everywhere. Times have changed, and they don’t like it a bit. Some go with the flow, some don’t, and this guy doesn’t.”

“An Unfinished Life” was adapted from a novel by Mark Spragg. Since it was not developed by Redford’s Wildwood production company, unlike most of his films of the past 25 years, he enjoyed the relative freedom of being an actor for hire.

“Oh, Lasse and I did a little bit of work on the script,” he says of director Lasse Hallstrom, who specializes in novel-to-film adaptations like “The Cider House Rules” and “Chocolat.”

“Mostly, we’re concerned about getting too sentimental,” Redford says. “He’s a Swede. He likes things more stoic. I just like things more expressed than talked about.”

Which means he’s not that comfortable talking about the fate of “An Unfinished Life,” the sort of serious-minded but morally redemptive film that generally resounds with Oscar voters.

It is not a stretch to imagine Redford, Freeman – once again the voice of reason, but also hilarious – and Hallstrom getting Oscar nominations if a serious campaign is mounted.

Instead, the Weinsteins have elected to put their legendary Oscar marketing muscle behind two other films starring actors they hope will be willing to make a lot more movies for their new Weinstein Company: “Proof,” with Gwyneth Paltrow, and “The Libertine,” with Johnny Depp.

“I can’t do a thing about it, but I tell you it does not feel good,” says Redford. “It’s really not about winning any awards for me, anyway, although I wouldn’t mind seeing Morgan get some more recognition. Besides being a fine human being, he’s one of the best actors there ever was, not because he can play God, but because he can play anything from the devil to God convincingly.

“I just want people to know the film is out there,” he says. “It’s awful to spend a lot of time doing something you know is worthwhile, and then see it sit around in limbo for a couple of years, and then sort of just get tossed out there in a marketplace where if you don’t get a lot of attention the first weekend, it just disappears into the ether.

“This is a movie that might change a lot of perceptions about Jennifer, too, and the little girl who plays her daughter (Becca Gardner) is really terrific.”

In the meantime, Redford has plenty of other projects to keep him busy. Wildwood is developing a movie about Jackie Robinson, in which he might play Branch Rickey, and he’s considering directing his first film since 2000’s “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

He was prepared to make a film of a book by Allan Tennant called “On the Wing,” a nonfiction work about two men tracking the peregrine falcon through America.

But his attention has turned to a script about the radicals who went underground in the 1970s. It will be filmed in upstate New York and in what Redford calls “the real ground zero of the antiwar movement,” Ann Arbor, Mich.

“This is a story that was too hot to touch for a long time,” he says, “but I think enough time is passed, and also that this is a story with a lot of relevance for right now, you know?

“So I wanted to get started. The time is right.”

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